Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Association of University Teachers

  As you can see, we have deliberately focused our submission on one aspect of your enquiry, namely the section of the 1993 White Paper entitled "research careers in universities".

  The experiences and concerns of the 36,000 fixed-term contract research staff (CRS) as the main practitioners of science in UK higher education are of crucial importance to the delivery of science policy in this country. As such, we feel it is important that the Committee takes account of the issues attached in our evidence during its deliberations.


  The Association of University Teachers (AUT) represents over 40,000 academic and academic-related staff in UK universities, colleges and research institutes. The future of UK science and technology is a key concern for the association. We have been an active member of the Science Alliance, an informal grouping of the main science unions, which has sought to promote discussion on science and technology issues.1The association, therefore, welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology committee's inquiry into the impact of the 1993 white paper, Realising our Potential. We also welcome the decision by the committee to extend this inquiry to take into account the 2000 science and innovation white paper, Excellence and Opportunity and the recently announced science budget.

  In this submission we want to focus on one aspect of the 1993 white paper, the section entitled "research careers in universities". As a trade union and a professional association, we are especially concerned about the plight of the 36,000 fixed-term contract research staff (CRS) currently employed in UK higher education.2The association believes that casualisation undermines career progression, creates great insecurity, erodes academic freedom, and contributes to the levels of stress experienced by academic and related staff.3In addition, the growth in the numbers of CRS continues to be a major barrier to the recruitment and retention of high quality staff, as the 1993 Science White Paper itself recognised.4

Research careers in universities: "Are we realising our potential"?

  The 1993 White Paper was instrumental in focusing attention on the training and career development of researchers. It prompted the signing of the Concordat on Contract Research Staff Career Management and the establishment of the Research Careers Initiative (RCI), both designed to improve the careers of contract research staff. These initiatives, however, have done little to challenge the prevailing "contract culture". University employers and the funding and research councils have failed to reduce the scale of CRS. In fact, recent research produced by the association found that the level of casualisation of research staff in the UK has marginally increased since 1995-96, despite the initiatives emerging out of the White Paper. A staggering 94 per cent of "research only" staff in 1998-99 were on fixed-term contracts.5

  Unfortunately, the problems of CRS have not been a major theme in the recent oral evidence presented to the Science and Technology Committee.6Moreover, the new Science White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity, devotes just a single paragraph to considering issues related to CRS. Paragraph 34 states:

  "Young people need to be able to see that jobs in university research lead somewhere - whether within academia or to careers outside. We are concerned about career development prospects for young people starting out".7

  This reveals two misconceptions about CRS:

    —  CRS are young people "starting out"

    —  Research posts in HEIs funded by external research projects, are transitory, the only long-term jobs being "academic (lecturing)" posts in HEIs, or jobs in industry.

  Unfortunately, similar assumptions are made in the recent Fundamental Review of Research conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).8This document makes the assumption that CRS are young, inexperienced and temporary "post-doctoral assistants" who are yet to begin proper academic careers.

  These misconceptions and assumptions should be corrected and challenged. Far from being temporary and short-term, a significant proportion of CRS have served in institutions for a long period and are highly experienced researchers. For example, an OST analysis in 1997, showed that, of those ex-research council PhD students who had entered higher education as CRS, nine years later 33 per cent were still in academia as CRS.9Similarly, figures from a recent survey of researchers at Bristol University found that 45 per cent were employed as CRS for 3-10 years and 12 per cent for more than 10 years.10The most recent HESA data (1998-99) also reinforces this point about the experience of CRS. 45 per cent of all 35-39 year old academics were on fixed-term contracts, and 93 per cent of "research-only" staff aged 35-39 were also on a fixed-term contract (representing 15 per cent of the CRS total).11

  We therefore, recommend a more realistic model of how university research is delivered. The basic principle is that there is essentially a single group of staff—academics—undertaking a spectrum of research (R), teaching (T) and administration (A) within HEIs today. HEFCE-funded lecturing staff may tend to have a balance between R, T, A. CRS will do a much higher proportion of R, but are still likely to undertake some T and A, including training of PhD students. There will be fine-grained interactions between all research staff, especially when working in research teams. PhD students will also make significant contributions to research and teaching output. The range of research activities—blues skies, grant applications, management, crux research—may be undertaken by members from either of the staff groups (PhD students may also be involved in these). Both staff groups will have a range of experience in various aspects of research, including contributing to the RAE and other prestige ratings. Above all, there will be CRS who have achieved many years of service within HEIs, in the face of significant obstacles due to the casual nature of their employment. This valuable contribution to university life needs to be openly acknowledged—and properly rewarded—by the relevant stakeholders.

Prospects for improving employment practices

  Paragraph 34 of Excellence and opportunity concludes: "...and so we are encouraging the university employers and the funding and research councils to develop:

    —  targets for, and better monitoring of, institutional performance in managing contract staff;

    —  recognition and reward schemes for the development of researchers;

    —  promotion of relevant evaluation and best practice models; and

    —  better provision and co-ordination of career guidance and staff development resources."

  We would argue that this does not go nearly far enough. All evidence so far reveals that HEIs will not develop any meaningful changes to CRS "management" or "development". The Concordat has produced virtually no concrete changes since 1996. The second report of the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) makes for extremely disappointing reading. It reveals that progress for better management of CRS has been slow or non-existent, with many HEIs not even implementing the basic RCI recommendations.12

  The assumption that fixed-term contracts for certain academic researchers (ie those working on externally-funded research projects) are inevitable, is also evident in the Excellence and Opportunity White Paper: ("30,000 or more researchers are on fixed-term contracts"). This fatalism is disappointing. Not all the relevant stakeholders believe that the current reliance by HEIs on multiple fixed-term contracts for researchers is inevitable. Certain research councils, for example EPSRC, believe that CRS should move on, either to permanent non-EPSRC funded posts in universities, or out into industry in order to maintain a flow of research experts into the wider economy. In discussions with the AUT's CRS committee, EPSRC have acknowledged that HEIs should be prepared to employ researchers on open-ended contracts.

  One possible way of achieving this is to encourage universities to pool income streams. This would be likely to involve sharing the finances for staff costs at the level of the institution rather than the current system which devolves staffing responsibilities to departments, sections, or research groups. The current mindset of university managers leads them to treat fixed-term staff as a variable cost, whereas treating staffing costs as an essential overhead would encourage employers to view employees as a long-term and valuable asset. To achieve this would undoubtedly require a paradigm shift in thinking among employers and research councils in relation to research funding. Nevertheless, this should not be such a daunting task for institutions whose underlying principle is to move beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

Building a science and innovation policy for the 21st century: the role of CRS

  In its review of science and innovation policy, the Government should firstly ensure the establishment of an accurate model of how research is conducted in universities, in particular considering the role currently performed by CRS. Secondly, it should instruct the national bodies responsible for academic research (university employers and the funding and research councils) to implement the RCI recommendations. One immediate initiate would be for the Government to ensure that other funding councils extend work undertaken by the Scottish Funding Council to improve conditions for researchers. Thirdly, the Government should question all aspects of the effectiveness of keeping such a large proportion of academic researchers on fixed-term contracts. The association considers that such contracts are wasteful and inefficient, let alone damaging and demotivating for all staff concerned. This review is concerned with effective delivery of excellent science, and so this is an ideal opportunity to address these problems. Rather than assuming casualisation is an "opportunity", this means challenging the presumption that casualised labour is the best and only way to deliver research in the 21st century.


  1 See, for example, the discussion document Contract or Career: a career in science?, Science Alliance, March 1996.

  2 According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 36,471 full time fixed-term research-only staff in 1998/99 (out of total of 130,534 academic staff).

  3 On stress, see Association of University Teachers, Pressure points: a survey into the causes and consequences of occupational stress in UK academic and related staff, Spring 1998, London: AUT.

  4 Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, Cm2250, May 1993, para 7.27-7.31.

5 Association of University Teachers, Trends in casual employment in higher education,

  6 The one exception was the submission from the CVCP. Even here they misrepresent the nature of the problem. For example, there is no empirical evidence to assume 70 percent of CRS staff should not expect a career in university research. The memorandum can be found at:

  7 Excellence and Opportunity: a science and innovation policy for the 21 century, DTI, 2000, p.23.

  8 HEFCE, Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding, September 2000. See

  9 K Sproston and J Field, Survey of Postgraduates Funded by the Research Councils, OST, 1998.

  10 University of Bristol Personnel Department, "Results of CRS Questionnaire—December 1999". See: http//

  11 AUT analysis of HESA 1998-99 Individualised Staff Record.

  12 Research Careers Initiative, 2nd Report, May 2000. For the first and second reports, see

January 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001